Sunday, August 15, 2004

More Grammar

Down a few posts below I had some fun with language. I have more questions on a pair of phrases I see used a lot.

Toe the line or Tow the line? Which is correct? Is it the idea that a line was drawn on the ground and all the men must place their toes along it, to create an orderly rank, as in soldiers or in a challenge? To toe the line as in submitting? Or is it that all the men must grab a handful of a towline and pull? To tow the line in the sense of contributing, the expectation of fair share? Or even in the sense of a group action to create movement, or more broadly, change?

I've always understood it to be something like, "You will toe the line or there will be hell to pay!" In other words: do it right, discipline yourselves, I'm the boss.

I've always assumed the other version is just sloppy writing, or misspelling, because even then the sense of usage is almost always still submission.

Free rein or Free reign? I've always assumed it was free rein, like giving the horse his head by letting up on the reins. Free rein is something I do for the horse's benefit. I am the actor. "This is your project, Sally. You have free rein." In other words, I'm still in charge, but I'm giving you wide latitude to act.

Free reign implies that the king or queen is free to do what she wants. But that's always the case with a sovereign. They have absolute rule, even if custom has removed the exercise of many powers and the lesser aristocracy threatens not to support the imperial action. Free reign is swimming. It's not quite a non sequitor, but it's a bafflement. "This is your project, Sally. You have free reign." That's almost contradictory, isn't it?

At least to me. Your thoughts?

While I'm at it, let me also mention that I have a real problem with excess emphasis in my writing. I do it all the time! It's awful!! Make me STOP!! All those bolds, italics and exclamation marks. They litter my writing like Burma Shave signs litter the highway. It's a reflection of my punchy speaking style but in print it just looks amateurish. I try to stomp it out, but constantly find myself wanting to hit certain words and phrases. I go back, reread those posts, and wince. I look like some worked-up high-schooler or an angsty, art-damaged collegian.

I've said it before: I need an editor.

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